One group of five planes, a flight of Navy TBM Avengers, on a mission from the Fort Lauderdale Naval Air Station, on December 5, 1945, were the object, along with the Martin Mariner sent to rescue them and which also disappeared, of one of the most intensive ground-sea rescue operations ever conducted, although no life rafts, oil slicks, or wreckage were ever located…
No incident before or since has been more remarkable than this total disappearance of an entire training flight, along with the giant rescue plane, a Martin Mariner with a crew of thirteen, which inexplicably vanished during rescue operations.
Flight 19 was the designation of the group of doomed planes which left their base at Fort Lauderdale on the afternoon of December 5, 1945. They were manned by five officer pilots and nine [?] crew members, the latter detailed two to each plane but on this day short one man, who had requested removal from flying status because of a premonition and who had not been replaced. The planes were Navy Grumman TBM-3 Avenger torpedo bombers, and each carried enough fuel to enable it to cruise over 1,000 miles. The temperature was 65°, the sun was shining, there were scattered clouds and a moderate northeast wind. Pilots who had flown earlier the same day reported ideal flying weather. Flight time was calculated as two hours for this Pacific mission. The planes started taking off at two pm and by 2.10 pm they were all airborne. Lieutenant Charles Taylor, with over 2,500 hours’ flying time, who was in command, led the planes to Chicken Shoals, north of Bimini, where they were to make practice runs on a target hulk. Both pilots and [crew] were experienced airmen and there was no reason for anything of an unusual nature to happen during the mission of that flight.
But something did happen, and with a vengeance. At about [?] pm, after the bombing run had been accomplished and planes had continued east, the radio[man?] at the Fort Lauderdale Naval Air Station tower, who had been ex-contact from the planes regarding estimated time of [?] landing instructions, received an unusual message from the flight leader. The record shows the following:
“Leader (Lieutenant Charles Taylor) calling tower. This is an emergency. We seem to be off-course.”
References [were made] to 75-mile-per-hour winds, and the unnerving observation that every gyro and magnetic compass in all the planes [was] off – “going crazy,” as it was reported… The [?] showing a different reading. During all this the powerful transmitter at Fort Lauderdale was unable to make any contact with the five planes, although the inter-communications were fairly audible.
By this time the personnel of the base were in an understandable uproar as news spread that Flight 19 had encountered an emergency. All kinds of suppositions concerning enemy attack (although World War II had been over for several months), or even attacks by new enemies, suggested themselves, and rescue craft were dispatched, notably a twin-enginned Martin Mariner flying boat patrol plane with a crew of thirteen, from the Banana River Naval Air Station.
At four pm the tower suddenly heard that Lieutenant Taylor had unexpectedly turned over command to a senior marine, Captain Stiver. Although obscured by static and strained by tension, an understandable message was received from him:
“Are not sure where we are… We think we must be [?] miles northeast of… We must have passed over Florida and we must be in the Gulf of…”
The flight leader then apparently decided to turn [?] degrees in the hope of flying back over Florida, but as they made the turn the transmission began to get fainter, indicating that they made a wrong turn and were flying east, away from the Florida coast over the open sea. Some reports claim that the words heard from Flight 19 were “It looks like we are…”, though other listeners seem to remember more, such as:
“[?] white water… We are completely lost…”
Meanwhile the tower received a message only minutes after from Lieutenant [?], one of the officers of the Martin Mariner, dispatched to the general area where the [?] was presumed to be, that there were strong winds above [?] feet. This, however, was the last message received from [?]:
Flight leader: We cannot see land… Repeat … We cannot see land.
Tower: What is your position?
Flight leader: We are not sure of our position. We cannot be sure just where we are… We seem to be….
Tower: Assume bearing due west.
Flight leader: We don’t know which way is west. Everything is… strange… We can’t be sure of any direction – even the ocean doesn’t look as it should…
At about 3.30 the senior flight instructor at Fort Lauderdale had picked up on his radio a message from someone calling Powers, one of the student flyers, requesting information about his compass readings, and heard Powers say, “I don’t know where we are. We must have got lost after that last turn.” The senior flight instructor was able to contact the Flight 19 instructor, who told him “Both my compasses are out. I am trying to find Fort Lauderdale… I am sure I’m in the key; but I don’t know how far…” The senior flight instructor thereupon advised him to fly north – with the sun on the port side – until he reached the Fort Lauderdale Naval Air Station. But he subsequently heard: “We have just passed [?] Island… No other land in sight.” An indication that the instructor’s plane was not over the keys and that the entire flight, since they were unable to see land, which would normally follow a continuation of the key, had lost its direction.
It became increasingly difficult to hear messages from Flight 19 because of static. Apparently Flight 19 could no longer hear messages from the tower, but the tower could hear [?] between the plane [?]. Some of these messages referred to [?] fuel shortages – fuel for only seventy-[?] miles, the rescue plane [?].
Shortly after this all search units received an urgent message stating that six planes instead of five were now missing. The rescue plane, with a crew of thirteen, had disappeared as well.
No further message was ever received from the Flight 19 training mission or from the Martin Mariner that was sent to rescue them. Some time after seven pm, however, the Opa-Locka Naval Air Station in Miami received a faint message consisting of “FT… FT…”, which was part of the call letters of the planes of Flight 19, the instructor’s plane being FT-28. But if this message was really from the “lost patrol,” the time period in which it was received would indicate that the message was sent two hours after the planes had presumably run out of fuel.
The original air search, initiated on the day of disappearance, was suspended because of darkness, although coastguard vessels continued to look for survivors during the night. The next day, Thursday, an enormous search effort was started at “first light,” ie, daybreak. But in spite of one of history’s most intensive searches, involving 240 planes and 67 additional planes from the aircraft carrier Solomon 3, four destroyers, several submarines, eighteen coast guard vessels, search-and-rescue cutters, hundreds of private planes, yachts, and boats, and additional planes from the Banana River Naval Air Station and help by RAF and Royal Navy units in the Bahamas, nothing was found.
A daily average of 167 flights, flying about 300 feet above the water from dawn to dusk, a minute inspection of 380,000 square miles of land and sea, including the Atlantic, Caribbean, parts of the Gulf of Mexico, and the Florida mainland and neighboring islands, with air-search time totaling 4,100 hours, revealed no life rafts, no wreckage and no oil slicks. The [coasts?] of Florida and the Bahamas were checked daily for a period of several weeks for identifiable flotsam from the lost [planes] without success.
Possible leads were investigated. A report that a red over land had been seen by a commercial plane [?] time of the disappearances was first thought to be the possible [wreck?] of the Martin Mariner, but later denied. Still a merchant ship reported an explosion in the sky at 7.30, but if this explosion concerned the five Avengers, it can mean that they were still flying hours after their fuel had been exhausted. Furthermore, to explain in this the loss without trace of all planes would imply that they [?] together and exploded all at once after having maintained radio silence since the time contact was interrupted. It is remarkable that no SOS messages were received [from] Flight 19 or the rescue mission. As far as making forced [landings] in the sea, the Avengers were capable of making water landings and in any event could stay afloat for [?] seconds, with their crews trained to abandon ship in seconds. Life rafts were available and were obtained outside the planes. Therefore, in almost any kind of landing the life rafts would float and would eventually [land]. During the early part of the rescue effort some noted large swells in the sea, but the waves were so quiet that the planes could have landed, if necessary, in troughs between them. The curious reference to “white water” in the last message received from Flight 19 may have connection with the thick and confusing white [?], which is an occasional feature of the area. This might [explain] the lack of visual sighting and the report that “the ocean doesn’t look right,” but this should not have affected compasses and gyroscopes. In addition, there is a known [?] spot between Florida and the Bahamas, but the trouble started before radio contact was lost.
The naval board of inquiry, after examining all available [evidence] and incidentally debating the court-martial of the officer (who was later exonerated when it was [revealed] that all his instruments had checked out before takeoff) ended up as much in the dark as ever as to what had really happened. Part of the report states: “A radio message intercepted indicated that the planes were lost and that they were experiencing malfunctioning of their compasses.” Captain WC Wingard, an information officer, was somewhat more direct in a subsequent press interview: “Members of the board of inquiry were not able to make even a good guess as to what happened.” Another board member rather dramatically commented: “They vanished as completely as if they had flown to Mars,” thereby introducing the intriguing elements of space travel and possible UFOs, which have since become very much a part of the Bermuda Triangle legend.
Serious investigators and oceanographers have offered a variety of opinions as to how these and so many other ships and planes could disappear without trace, and how so many pilots and passengers could completely vanish. Lieutenant Commander RH [?], a training officer at the Fort Lauderdale Naval Air Base at the time of the incident, who has considered the case for many years, thinks that the word “disappear” is an important factor concerning the fate of the crew of Flight 19 as no proof has ever been adduced that they effectively perished… A coastguard officer, a member of the board of inquiry, expressed himself with rather refreshing frankness as he observed [?], “We don’t know what the hell is going on out there.” And a final, more [?] statement from another officer of the board experienced [?] of the investigating [?]: “This peacetime loss seems to be a total mystery, the strangest ever investigated in the annals of naval aviation.”…
Another unusual element in the mystery of Flight 19 became public 29 years after the incident when Art Ford, reporter, author, and lecturer who has followed the case since 1945, made a startling revelation over a national TV program in 1974, indicating that Lieutenant Taylor had said, over his radio, “Don’t come after me… They look like they are from outer space.” Ford states that this original information was given to him at the time of the happening by a ham-radio operator but that he did not give much credence to it, considering the difficulties of an amateur operator receiving communications from moving aircraft and also the excitement and rumors prevalent at the time of the incident.
But Ford, later in his investigations, received some unusual corroboration in a transcript of the plane-to-tower messages included in a [?] report brought on by pressure from parents of the missing personnel. The official and formerly secret transcript, which Ford states he was permitted to examine in part only, contained at least one phrase – “Don’t come after me” – in common with that supplied to Ford by the civilian shortwave radio operator and, significantly, never previously released.